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Last Updated: Friday, 5 March, 2004, 11:04 GMT
Where do Brown's ambitions lie?
By Nick Assinder
BBC News Online political correspondent

Gordon Brown and Tony Blair

There is only one thing that would lead Chancellor Gordon Brown to even consider bidding for the job as head of the International Monetary Fund.

He would need to have abandoned any last hope that he is set to replace Tony Blair as leader of the Labour Party.

The chancellor is certainly eminently qualified for the IMF job and, under other circumstances, would find it an attractive, not to mention lucrative, option. He has expressed interest in it before, after all.

It can never do a politician any harm to be seen being tipped for powerful jobs
It is even just possible, albeit hugely unlikely, that he could go off and do the job for a few years before returning as the next Labour leader - or the one after that.

But the only question that matters at the moment is why on earth Mr Brown would want the job now.

There have been persistent rumours that he and the prime minister have done another deal - this time for the prime minister to hand over the reins of power a year after winning the next election, assuming he does.

[an error occurred while processing this directive] Uncertainty

Alternatively, there is widespread speculation that Mr Blair is planning to stand down before the next election - some time this autumn - and Mr Brown would take over then.

Both of these scenarios are pure speculation and could simply be wrong.

The prime minister appears to mean it when he says he will fight the next election, for example.

But that does not alter the fact that his future is still far from certain and that a coup against him before the election cannot be absolutely ruled out.

What is undoubtedly accurate is that the chancellor has always wanted the top job and, as far as anyone in Westminster can tell, still does.

Rousing oratory

His party conference speech last September was not that of a man whose ambition has cooled. Absolutely the opposite.

It was the speech of a man reminding his party of his leadership qualifications.

It came as the prime minister was facing serious questions over his leadership, notably over the war on Iraq, but also on the issues of trust and delivery.

And, in many ways, little has changed for the prime minister since then.

Rebel threat?

Mr Blair may have escaped censure by the Hutton inquiry into Iraq and won his crunch Commons votes on tuition fees, but as his speech in Sedgefield showed, he recognises he is still in trouble over Iraq. Trust and delivery also still remain major issues.

He is putting up a fight and there is plenty of work going on behind the scenes in Westminster finally to take on the rebels who have persistently sniped at him, and the smaller group which just wants rid of him.

Whether that activity translates into any real action against the rebels remains to be seen and is probably unlikely - it could probably only make matters worse.

So, far from being further away from the top job, Mr Brown may actually be closer to it as ever.

The showbiz dilemma

What has helped this speculation to run, of course, is the refusal of Mr Brown┐s people to instantly slap it down.

But that is a long way from suggesting he is really pursuing this option.

More likely it is because it can never do a politician any harm to be seen being tipped for powerful jobs.

And, of course, in politics as in showbiz, there is only one thing worse than people gossiping about you and that is people not gossiping about you.

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